Price, awards, headaches: Wine expert reveals the key questions we should all be asking before buying our next bottle

couple choosing wine in store
Choosing the perfect bottle of plonk can be a tricky business. Photo credit: Getty.

Choosing that perfect bottle of wine for any occasion is a complex art that if you don't have a handle on, can leave you dithering in the supermarket or liquor store much longer than is necessary - not ideal if you're running late for a dinner party. 

If you're anything like me, this means you can often be left buying the same drop time after time - a comfortable space, but one that does get pretty boring after a while. 

But according to one Kiwi wine expert, all of the wine rules we've spent our adulthood trying to get our head around are meant to be broken.

Pete Turner, chief winemaker at West Auckland winery The Hunting Lodge, has over 15 years of experience in the industry and is known for his eagerness to break the rules. 

In fact, his penchant for rule-breaking has led to an entire range called Project X, which enables Turner to dabble with creative concoctions like an Orange wine, Chardy Jack and a recent Tennessee Red, among others.

Pete Turner, chief winemaker at The Hunting Lodge winery.
Pete Turner, chief winemaker at The Hunting Lodge winery. Photo credit: Supplied.

If you're struggling to find a drop you like, Turner has answered every question you might have when it comes to navigating price, brands and even post-wine headaches - whether you're looking for yourself, or for impressing at your next dinner party. 

I do mean EVERY question - I would recommend pouring yourself a glass of something and settling in to read this one.

Turner's top tips for selecting your next drop:

The Occasion: "Am I trying to impress someone? When should I lay it on?" 

A casual catch-up with friends, a gourmet restaurant meal, or a boozy dinner party? Every occasion warrants different tastes and budgets. Choose your wine accordingly. Yes, it might be a bit weird busting out pink bubbles the first time you meet your prospective father-in-law. A big, tannic red may not be the best choice for a summer's aperitif with the girls either. Think about the occasion before you buy. Save the splurges for the right time but if you just swiped right and you're out to impress, you might want to hide that bag-in-box and up your game. 

The Wallet: "Will my mates forgive me if I serve them cheap plonk?"

Probably not, but unfortunately budget is often of primary consideration and the limiting factor when buying wine. However, good wine doesn't have to be expensive - you can find great quality at low prices. Choose the right time to open your wallet as budget and occasion are intrinsically linked. If you're a true Kiwi and love a bargain, wine is always being discounted, particularly in the grocery stores. Don't think the quality may be inferior, however - it's all part of the sales strategy. Remember to look on the right shelf. Plonk at the bottom, premium at the top. If you're splurging - should you go French or Italian? Maybe, but you're going to have to dig deep into those pockets if you want something from a classic appellation such as Burgundy or Bordeaux. Southern French and modern Spanish wines are typically reliable and great value for money but remember there are fantastic New Zealand wines to cater for all tastes and budgets. Here's a cheap tip: if you're trying to impress on a budget, use a decanter to serve the wine. People will automatically think the wine must be worthy, no matter what it is.

man and woman drinking wine
"Will my mates forgive me if I serve them cheap plonk?" Photo credit: Getty.

The Style: "I'm so over Sauvignon Blanc" and "I never go past a big Aussie Shiraz".

If you think all Sauvignon Blanc tastes the same, you've been stuck in the wrong supermarket aisle. Savvies are becoming as diverse as coffee styles in NZ with sub-regional and barrel fermented offerings. Still not convinced? How about Pinot Gris? Well, this is the chicken option - safe but often boring! You can forget what you thought about Chardonnay previously. Chardys are back and there's a style for everyone from tight and mineral to big and buttery. As for reds, are you always drinking Aussie Shiraz? If so, you have less culture than that pottle of yoghurt festering in your fridge. [Editor's note: This is particularly devastating]. Sure, plenty of Shiraz is good, but get over it. Try a Hawke's Bay red. A good vintage delivers generous ripe fruit, richness and exceptional value.

The Newbie: "Wine is so intimidating. Where do I start?"

New to wine? Start with a white or rosé. Look for current vintage wines to enjoy something fresh, vibrant and fruit-forward. Think about the flavours you like in other foods. For example, if you like citrus, try a Riesling or an Albariño. Peaches and apricots more your thing? Go for a Viognier or even a Chardonnay. If you like black fruits, try a Malbec or Cabernet. Do red wines give you a headache? Try a red lighter in tannin such as Pinot Noir. Prefer softer, more savoury reds? Seek out slightly older vintages (not too old!) of Syrah and Merlot. Struggling to remember the name of that fantastic wine you had last weekend? This is a problem for many of us, especially when you're on the second bottle. Try an App like Vivino which recognises wine labels and helps you build a library of preferred varietals and styles, providing recommendations for future purchases.

The after-effects: "Will Organic Wines not give me a headache?"

Don't believe everything you read on the internet. Sulphites are the new 'sugar' of the wine world it seems. Well, they're not pure evil. Sulphites are the only preservative used in wine to keep it fresh and free from spoilage. As a matter of fact, you will find sulphite levels in wine are significantly lower than a lot of food products. Processed meats, peanuts and dried fruit are real culprits, so if you react to any of these then you may well take issue with sulphites in wine, but less than one percent of the population is thought to react to sulphites. As a rule, red wines will generally be lower in sulphites than white wine because they have more natural protection from tannins. An organic wine may be slightly lower in sulphites but only a natural wine is likely to be sulphite free. There are relatively high levels of naturally occurring histamine in wine which people can react to. There's a good chance this may be the cause of your headache or hot flush, rather than the sulphites. And believe it or not, there is often a pattern between the number of glasses consumed and the intensity of the headache!

The Plunge: "Should I try something new?"

Al-ba-ri-no. Say what?! Viogni-ehh? Yip, time to break out of your wine shell and try something different. The world of wine is full of discovery and there is something for everyone. If you love Riesling but think it is the choice of thespians and academics, try an Albariño for more cool factor. Most New Zullanders butcher any foreign language, so don't be afraid if you can't pronounce the name. Just ask for "that one"! Wine is fashion after all, so keep up with the play. If there are man-buns and groomed beards abound in your circle, pick up an orange or natural wine. This is sure to keep the hipsters talking - even if nobody drinks it.

The Match: "What am I eating with this?"

This is very important. You don't want to ruin that expensive, tannic Bordeaux Red by drinking it with chilli mussels. Keep wine and food pairings simple. Match like with like - bold with bold and delicate with delicate flavours. In general, keep white wines for lighter dishes and reds for heavier dishes, except in the case of spice or chilli, stick with a white carrying some residual sweetness. Good wine and food matches are about either complement or contrast. Match flavours that complement each other or contrasting flavours and textures to provide balance. White wines are very versatile as are off-dry rosés and lighter-bodied reds such as Pinot Noir. Acidic food generally needs a more acidic wine, but a high-acid, dry white can also work well with creamy and oily dishes by cutting through the fat and cleansing the palate. A big, robust red will usually work well with heavy, red meat dishes. Higher alcohols also tend to cut through dishes high in fat. Match sweet dishes with a sweeter wine.

drinking wine at a dinner party
"What am I eating with this?" Photo credit: Getty.

The Quality: "How do I know it's going to be good?"

Bling - shiny medal stickers can be a good indication of quality. However, look for accolades from respected wine writers and competitions - a bronze medal from the Te Puke International Wine Show might not cut it. Trust what you know. Consider second-tier labels from well-known or highly regarded producers. A lot of good fruit makes its way into these wines. Similarly, if you want to splurge, go for a more premium offering from a brand you know and like. Never wait until the end of the night to bust out that special bottle you've been cellaring away. We all do it, but usually nobody remembers it, let alone appreciates it. Grand Cru Burgundy (for those who can afford it) is not going to be memorable after Espresso Martinis.

The Brand: "Boutique label or Large Producer?"

We all get seduced by boutique wine brands and their stories of sweat, passion and heartbreak. However, large producers often have access to some of the best vineyards and winemaking talent. They generally offer reliable, consistent quality. Don't rule them out or their more premium wines. But if you particularly like the story or philosophy of any producer, then go for it. So much of wine is subjective and it's a matter of finding a brand that resonates as well as tastes good.

The Detail: "What will the back label tell me?"

A lot... or a little. Back labels are challenging territory for many of us, but don't be scared. Just take all the superlatives and adjectives at face value. They may sound mouth-watering, but this is the power of marketing. Look for simple keywords if you know little about wine. Medium-bodied, dry, off-dry, moderate acidity, firm tannins, etc will give you a few objective clues about the style. Don't get too sucked in by terms like Reserve, Winemakers Selection or hand-crafted either. Being a vintage product, all wine is of Limited Release too. If all else fails, go for a celebrity label to help your street cred. There's a Provence Rosé brand from everyone's idol now, be it a rapper, movie or pop star. 

man and assistant choosing wine in a store
"Should I trust the Sommelier or wine shop assistant?" Photo credit: Getty.

The Expert: "Should I trust the Sommelier or wine store assistant?"

Sommeli-what?! In short, a sommelier is a wine waiter. And yes, you should trust them, but not if they sniff the cork when they open the bottle! Sommeliers do not work on commission and a good one will be able to read their customers by asking just a few questions. Be warned though: some sommeliers recommend interesting wines which may be complex but are not necessarily easy drinking. 

And the wine store? Yes, ask for help. In a good store, they will know their stuff. Choose your store well and avoid places run by a student who cares less about wine than you do. Time is precious too and if the store assistant starts banging on about grape clones and soil types, move on. Go back to your App or Google for some quick advice.

The Temperature: "What temperature should I serve this at?"

Drink your whites warmer and your reds cooler. A wine straight out of the fridge at 4C will lack expression because the aroma and flavour will be subdued. Similarly, drinking a red at 30C will make the alcohol and tannin stick out like dogs. As a general rule, drink whites between 9C and 12C (cooler for rosés and bubbles) and reds between 14C and 18C. Some reds, particularly aromatic ones, respond well to light chilling, and this can go down a treat in warmer weather. 

Let them drink wine! The right wine for the right time at the right price. Finally, don't believe anyone who tells you the Riesling Renaissance is coming and Riesling will be the hippest wine to drink this summer. It's not and it won't! Cheers.